Friday, February 29, 2008

Propaganda and Experience

Once again my reading of John Dewey's Art as Experience has confronted me with an alternative perspective on one of my own reflections. This time the reflection had to do with my view of the New York Philharmonic's visit to North Korea in terms of what I called a positive connotation of "propaganda." The word "propaganda" does not show up in the index of Dewey's book (and I probably would have been surprised had I found it there). However, having labored over setting my own thoughts into writing, I felt as if the final sentence of his chapter on "The Expressive Object" had an I-told-you-so ring to it:

In the end, works of art are the only media of complete and unhindered communication between man and man that can occur in a world full of gulfs and walls that limit community of experience.

In How to Read a Book Mortimer Adler (along with Charles van Doren in later editions) wrote about "active reading" in the sense of the reader conducting a conversation with the author; and I found myself vain enough to think that, were Dewey still alive, he would have enjoyed having such a conversation over the significance of the concert the Philharmonic gave in Pyongyang. Still, the activity of conversation is not required to unpack many of the lovely details in this single sentence.

We begin with that phrase "complete and unhindered communication between man and man," which seems particularly important at a time when President George W. Bush is grandstanding against Barak Obama's statements about wanting to meet with the leaders of countries that he have declared to be our enemies. In the terminology of Anthony Giddens, Bush is more concerned with domination than with signification. This is what I was getting at when, in assessing the significance of the Philharmonic concert, I wrote:

Nevertheless, a paraphrase of Georges Clemenceau may be in order if we are to recognize that mutual understanding between radically different cultures is far too serious to be entrusted to political leaders, most of whom would prefer to think of leadership in terms of domination rather than understanding.

Recasting this from Dewey's point of view, one of the greatest hindrances of "communication between man and man" is the compulsion that one man has to dominate the other, regardless of what the reason for that compulsion may be. The unfortunate corollary is that a strategy intended for "enemies" finds itself being applied to everyone else. The most memorable legacy of the Bush Administration may be one of eight years of communication between the White House and the general public that was hindered at every turn and avoided completeness at all costs. The result is that we have become a culture of "gulfs and walls," some of which, like the fence along the Mexican border, have crossed the boundary from the figurative to the literal. By allowing domination to reduce Giddens' dimension of signification to virtual irrelevance, we have become a culture that has devalued the very concept of communication, thus reducing, in one violent stroke, all of the optimistic theories of Isaiah Berlin, Anthony Appiah, and Jürgen Habermas about effective cross-cultural communication to little more than a pile of rubble.

Are we then really so obsessed with being top dog at the expense of all the other qualities that make us human? Is this really what Bush I meant in his "new world order" rhetoric? If so, then I fear we have little to hope for in any new Executive Administration, regardless of who the President may be. The very competition for that position through the mechanics of our electoral process is just another instance of that top-dog thinking that creates more "gulfs and walls," whatever the rhetoric of bringing together a country that has torn itself apart with its differences may be. Perhaps the problem arises from a political system that does not really allow for coalitions. All that really matters is that "somebody wins," even if that "somebody" turns out to represent approximately half the country's population (which is, statistically, what the numbers from the last two Presidential elections were telling us). We take great satisfaction in reading about a disputed election in Kenya being resolved by building a coalition, yet this has never happened in our own history of Presidential elections, several of which were pretty contentiously disputed.

Yes, it is vain to speculate on what sorts of conversations I could have with Dewey were he alive today. With his attention to the role of education in a democratic society and his view of art as a reflection of our human experiences, the current state of affairs could well throw him into a deep depression. Under that dark cloud I doubt that he would be interested in having any conversations.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Sweet Diversity

Much of today was consumed by the "healing" of my computer, which is recovering from a hard drive crash. However, I wanted to set down a few words of reaction to my having been able to attend the Vocal Master Class that Barbara Bonney gave at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music last night. She worked with five promising students and devoted almost all of her time to the production of quality sound. While it was fascinating to see the ways in which she combined the use of literal language, physical language, demonstration with her own body, and even a bit of manipulation of the singer's body, there was one element missing. Thinking back on what I had experienced this morning, I realized that there was a slightly disconcerting uniformity across all of the voices I had heard (perhaps even including the one tenor among four sopranos). This is not to criticize what Bonney was doing: Getting the instrument under control is clearly prerequisite to then deciding how you will control that instrument. However, by focusing on the former, there was precious little time left for questions of "content." Why did the singer make specific selections; and what differentiated her (his) performance from all those other performances than many of us had previously experienced? In that respect this was quite different from my reaction to master classes in chamber music, where there has always been attention paid to performance as a conversation among distinctive voices.

Perhaps what I took away was far less important than the fact that Bonney was as interested in getting her message to the audience as she was in working with the selected students. Anyone interested in singing seriously would have benefited from last night's class, and Bonney even fielded questions from the audience. This was therefore perhaps the most "democratic" master class I ever attended. Had I been one of those voice students sitting in the audience rather than up on stage, I probably would not have been concerned about that lack of diversity. I would have been happy to attend an event where I could take away experiences almost on a par with the students with which she engaged directly.

As if We Don't Have Enough Bubbles

Having already addressed, earlier this week, the extent to which the "Internet prosperity" of corporate giants like Google may be a bubble about to burst, I took great interest in the analysis by Beat Balzli and Frank Hornig on SPIEGEL ONLINE entitled "What's Really Driving the Price of Oil?" This article deserves serious extended reading. However, the underlying principle is the case they make that the current price of oil has nothing to do with supply or demand and everything to do with the speculative behavior of futures trading; and this should remind us that economic bubbles are inflated when the "thin air" of speculation displaces those models of value that are based on "hard" commodities or the goods and services associated with those commodities. From this point of view, the key paragraph of the Balzli-Hornig analysis is probably the following:

Enormous amounts of money are currently changing hands in the business of oil contracts. With the American real estate debacle infecting ever larger segments of the capital markets, from stocks to bonds, investors are seeking alternatives worldwide. Oil, with its supposedly straightforward market rules and ever-rising prices, seems to be a perfect tool for spreading risk and maximizing profit. But many investors will have a rude awakening when they realize that an investment in oil, though it may look different, is no less a gamble than other types of investments.

This raises another important underlying principle, which is that any radical economic loss tends to incite desperate behaviors aimed at recovering from the loss as rapidly as possible. Anyone who doubts this principle can see it in action at just about any gaming table in Las Vegas (or at any other gambling establishment): the more you lose, the more driven you are to recover by playing the same game. Now that everyone has lost their shirts by betting too heavily on the financial sector, they are determined to recover them through oil futures. All Balzli and Hornig are doing is reminding us of the most important precept from The Money Game by "Adam Smith:" the crowd is always wrong. The only problem is that these gamblers are rarely the victims of their own bad judgment. The real victims are those for whom, as America Jones put it in a comment on one of my earlier posts, "the stock market represents a comfortable retirement rather than a fancy roulette wheel." Indeed, those victims lucky enough to have a job at all are now faced with an unpleasant choice between no longer being able to afford the commute to work or trying to live off of an enfeebled retirement fund. Meanwhile, our President told this morning's news conference that he "hadn't heard" about the likelihood of a gallon of gas costing $4. So much for all my cautionary remarks about the need for a "sense of reality!"

Golden Parachute Chutzpah

The bad news about subprime lending has been with us for almost a year. I took my own first serious look at it last year on March 16, when I first explored framing it as the new generation of Triangle Trade: racism to greed to subprime lending. Since then I have broadened my scope of impact beyond racism to an all-out War Against the Poor. Of course every war needs its commanding generals; and, since ours is not a culture that views acts of war against the economically disadvantaged as crimes against humanity, the only alternative to bringing such generals before a world tribunal seems to be to assign them Chutzpah of the Week awards. Fortunately, I can thank the Center for American Progress (CAP) for bringing three of the most damaging of those generals to my attention. I present them to you as the CAP presented them to me: who they are, the institutions they represented, and the severance agreements concluded with those institutions. All hyperlinks were provided by the CAP:

Countrywide’s founder and CEO Angelo R. Mozilo

$704 million: Countrywide Financial Corp. net loss in 2007.
11,000: Number of workers Countrywide laid off between July, 2007, and January 29, 2008.
$37.5 million: Approximate value of cash severance payments, consulting fees, and perquisites (including private airplane use) that Angelo Mozilo, founder and CEO of Countrywide, gave up after Countrywide’s merger with Bank of America.
$23.8 million: Estimated value of Mozilo’s company retirement plan in December 2006, the last year for which data are available. Mozilo did not forgo these benefits.

Merrill Lynch’s former Chairman and CEO E. Stanley O’Neal (ret. Oct. 30, 2007)

$161.5 million: Value of securities and retirement benefits that Stanley O’Neal walked away with from Merrill Lynch when he retired. O’Neal did not receive a traditional severance payment.
$7.8 billion: Merrill Lynch net loss for all of 2007.

Citigroup’s former Chairman and CEO Charles Prince (ret. Nov. 4, 2007)

$17.4 billion: Citigroup write-downs on subprime related direct exposures in 2007.
$9.83 billion: Citigroup’s 2007 fourth-quarter loss.
$40 billion: Approximate value of Prince’s retirement package, shares, and options in Citi stock upon his retirement in November, 2007.

It is not often that we can put a price on chutzpah, so CAP should be thanked for compiling these data points. Needless to say, these Chutzpah of the Week awards will provide little comfort to all those victims now littering the battlefield of this War Against the Poor; but, if they raise any awareness that this military engagement is as grievous a fault as our "adventures" in Afghanistan and Iraq, then it will have served its purpose.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Speaking of Coltrane …

Going out for an errand this morning, I realized that this was the first day of the year that San Francisco felt like spring and that this deserved some sort of ritual celebration. So it was that I decided to play the first disc in the two-disc impulse! set, The Major Works of John Coltrane. This is the disc that couples the first "edition" of "Ascension" with "Om." I suspect that this was as much a need to clear my head of all of that bad science being done in Coltrane's name as it was to get beyond a winter of discontent with a rogue strain of flu and an even more rogue strain of the American political process. This is not to recant on the healing power of Mozart, particularly where that flu was involved; but Coltrane is an entirely different manner of beast.

Indeed, Coltrane's approach to free jazz is very much a "rough beast," as Yeats put it; but it is hardly one that "Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born." As I had previously written, free jazz did not originate with Coltrane; but Coltrane moved to free jazz from a position of mass appeal (much of which derived from his take on "My Favorite Things") that the earliest pioneers (Lenny Tristano, Lee Konitz, and Warne Marsh) did not enjoy. What Coltrane did share with Tristano and his disciples was an intense, if not obsessive, drive towards a continual improvement of technique, in both the mechanics of execution and the conception of the material to be executed. Thus, neither Tristano nor Coltrane "slouched" their way into free jazz; they strode boldly into this unknown region, knowing full well that they would be sustained by the technique they had cultivated.

In terms of my own listening skills, I think it is important that I encountered "Ascension" at a time of intense interest in Anton Webern. Indeed, one of my music teachers had even set the task of composing a piece (which, in the Webern spirit, did not have to be particularly long) based on a bare minimum of intervals. As a result the first thing that struck me about "Ascension" was the minimality of the motif (five notes) that triggered off almost forty minutes of uninterrupted (expect for having to flip the vinyl disk) free blowing. Lord only knows what Coltrane would have thought of this Webern connection. From Lewis Porter's John Coltrane: His Life and Music, I learned that Coltrane disliked being associated with Arnold Schoenberg, because he felt that Schoenberg was more occupied with systems than with music. If he listened to Webern at all, Porter gave no account of that experience.

On the other hand Coltrane always seemed to take a positive view of experimentation, as much by others as with his own efforts. Thus he was a great supporter of Albert Ayler and even did a recording session with Cecil Taylor (which did not include any of Taylor's own compositions). I suspect that Coltrane's approach to free jazz involved what I recently called "a propagation of faith that takes place whenever musicians perform before an audience, the faith that music can achieve bonds of understanding that are beyond the reach of words," which is particularly consistent with the spirituality of "Om."

Another way to approach "Ascension" is as a return swing of a pendulum. Six months before the "Ascension" recording session, Coltrane had recorded A Love Supreme, a four-movement suite of, as Porter demonstrated, highly intricate compositional skill. Having worked with improvisational passages that kept getting longer and longer, it was not surprising that Coltrane would eventually arrive at such a large-scale work. Having done so, however, he then seemed to cut the ties to the constraints of the composed score, thus the need to fall back to a single five-note motif; the challenge was then to sustain that same large-scale duration without explicit charts to guide the way.

The San Francisco Jazz Festival has made it a point to program ten-year anniversary performances of "Ascension." The only one I heard was in 2005; and it was extremely (I might even say painfully) disappointing. It was a reminder of just how strong a foundation of technique was demanded of the eleven musicians who convened in the Van Gelder Studio on June 28, 1965. It is probably true that none of the other performers were quite as obsessive about technique as Coltrane was, but they all possessed imposing levels of skill that was sorely lacking among all the 2005 San Francisco performers. This fortieth anniversary therefore reminded us that free jazz is, and never has been, an easy matter. It is the ultimately testimony to John Dewey's conviction that art is, and can only be perceived as, a product of experience. If the experience is weak, what passes for art will be even weaker. On the other hand, when the experience is strong and sure, as was the case with the "Ascension" sessions, the result can create an impression that will endure for a lifetime and well deserves the celebration of a "rite of spring."

Science Messes with Jazz (Again?)

Having staked my doctoral degree on a thesis about computer music, I am always interested in what happens when the scientific community decides to make similar ventures into the world of music. One of those ventures was reported this morning on Net News Publisher:

Scientists funded by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) have found that, when jazz musicians are engaged in the highly creative and spontaneous activity known as improvisation, a large region of the brain involved in monitoring one’s performance is shut down, while a small region involved in organizing self-initiated thoughts and behaviors is highly activated. The researchers propose that this and several related patterns are likely to be key indicators of a brain that is engaged in highly creative thought. NIDCD is one of the National Institutes of Health. The study is published in the Feb. 27 issue of the journal Public Library of Science (PLoS) One.

Unfortunately, this study reveals more conflicts than insights. This is best illustrated by two additional excerpts from the Net New Publisher account. One is a summary of the experimental design:

During the study, six highly trained jazz musicians played the keyboard under two scenarios while in the functional MRI scanner. Functional MRI (fMRI) is an imaging tool that measures the amount of blood traveling to various regions of the brain as a means of assessing the amount of neural activity in those areas.

The other involves how the subject was introduced in the opening paragraph:

When John Coltrane was expanding the boundaries of the well-known song “My Favorite Things” at the Village Vanguard in May 1966, no one could have known what inspired him to take the musical turns he took. But imaging researchers may now have a better picture of how the brain was helping to carry him there.

That introduction is important because it exposes the pitfalls of trying to study something as subtle as the practice of music in a laboratory environment. Scientific investigation can rarely assess any phenomenon that is not normative, and Coltrane's practices were anything but normative. The November 17, 1962 Paris performance of "My Favorite Things" clocked in at almost 24 minutes; and the extended durations of Coltrane's solos even earned him sardonic criticism from Miles Davis! This is such a "statistical outlier" that I doubt that any examination of "six highly trained jazz musicians" will reveal very much. In other words the most interesting hypotheses that would try to link brain activity to improvisational behavior are likely to be the ones that account for the behavior that is least normative.

More important, however, is that improvisation is a social practice that goes far beyond the relationship between soloist and instrument, which the experimental design tried to capture. Improvisation is driven by the relationships that are taking place across the entire ensemble. One cannot understand Coltrane's behavior without taking into account the other members of his quartet. Any experiment that does not take this social dimension into account can only provide an impoverished body of data. In fairness, however, the idea of designing an experiment that would yield more valid data is so challenging as to be virtually impossible, at least with current equipment.

This is an excellent example of what happens when we run up against the limitations of what Thomas Kuhn called "normal science." We need to reassess both the questions we ask and the methods we design to answer them. Kuhn called this a "paradigm shift." Unfortunately, when funding for scientific research is limited, "normal science" tends to prevail; and the result is a collection of well-funded scientists running in circles like a dog chasing its tail!

Some Good News about REAL Health Maintenance

While the concept of "health maintenance" seems to be suffering "death by semantic contamination" in the United States, things may be looking better (which is to say, healthier) in Europe. When European Union countries started following the American lead on legislating bans on smoking in public places, the media were quick to flood us with stories of man-in-the-street outrage. Was this a case of governmental paternalism undermining deep-seated cultural values that defined national character; and, if so, why was it defining the "character" of so many nationalities (French, Italian, Irish, etc.)? Well, Net New Publisher has now issued a report of some recent data that assess the impact of such bans. The results seem to indicate that "governmental paternalism" may, indeed, have had a positive impact on public health:

French researchers announced a striking 15% decrease in admissions of patients with myocardial infarction to emergency wards since the public ban on smoking came into effect in restaurants, hotels and casinos in France last January. The announcement was made on 23 February by the National Sanitary Institute. Similar results were published in Italy on 12 February by the Environmental Health Authority: researchers in Rome found an 11.2 percent reduction of acute coronary events since the January 2005 smoking ban took effect in Italy.

Perhaps the punch line of this story is that, if "national character" really matters, it helps to stay alive long enough to exercise (and enjoy) those character traits!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Is the Bubble Bursting?

What happens when the numbers that make Google look so good are not there any more? This is the question being explored this morning by Silicon Alley Insider blogger Henry Blodget and his commenters. The numbers have to do with the click through rate, which is basically a measure of the revenue-bearing response to advertisements placed by Google on Web pages that they support (such as this one). Blodget's summary of the latest round of those numbers is, to say the least, hyperbolic:

Comscore reported shockingly bad US paid click performance for Google in January: flat growth year-over-year versus a 25% increase in Q4. Even if Comscore is only half right, this is a disaster.

As can be anticipated, both Blodget and his commenters are now rallying around a variety of explanatory hypotheses in an effort to assess the future of not only Google but the world the Internet has made through Google as a "primary instrument." So far David Brayton appears to be the one commenter to suggest that the whole idea of paid click performance as a value metric was specious in the first place and served only to obscure more old-fashioned metrics, such as ROI (return on investment). Seen through a more jaundiced eye, the value of paid click performance may be viewed as a confidence game, which worked while it was working, inflating an economic bubble at the same time. Questioning that value amounts to sticking a pin into that bubble, just as the bursting of the dot-com bubble emerged from questioning whether or not "new economy" thinking was securely grounded in a sense of value that you could "take to the bank," so to speak.

Regardless of how great or significant its magnitude may turn out to be, Google's apparent distress is sure to be greeted by considerable amount of Schadenfreude. As they used to say at Schlumberger (and probably just about every other large business), "Be nice to the people you meet on the way up; you will encounter them again on the way down!" The public voice of Google has always had the arrogant tone that, given enough smart people willing to cleave to the "Google vision," that enterprise could solve all the world's problems and anyone with alternative suggestions was too much of a mental midget to take seriously. Those mental midgets who are likely to be most problematic if Google goes into a descent will be those in government. They may not be "the age of people who are using all this stuff" (as Eric Schmidt put it so eloquently on one of his visits to Congress); but their careers will depend on how well (if at all) they can steer this country out of its current economic mess. With their sense of superiority (if not genuine economic value) seriously deflated, Google must now decide whether it wants to be part of the solution (rather than the know-it-all source of the entire solution) or part of the problem.

Symphonic Propaganda

Daniel J. Wakin's New York Times account of the New York Philharmonic's concert in Pyongyang, the largest contingent of Americans to visit North Korea since the Korean War ceasefire, is now available on the Times' web site. However, for all the advance work around arranging a program that would feature both Antonín Dvořák's "New World" symphony and George Gershwin's "American in Paris," Wakin's report began with extended coverage of a modest encore that attracted the most attention:

As the New York Philharmonic played the opening notes of “Arirang,” a beloved Korean folk song, a murmur rippled through the audience. Many of the staid spectators at this historic concert Tuesday night perched forward in their seats.

The piccolo sang a long, plaintive melody, cymbals crashed, harp runs flew up, the violins soared. And tears began forming in the eyes of the sober audience, row upon row of men in dark suits and women in colorful traditional dresses, all of them wearing pins of Kim Il-sung, the nation’s founding leader.

And there, the Philharmonic had them. The stirring performance of a piece of music deeply resonant for both North and South Koreans ended the concert in triumph.

“This is difficult to describe,” said one journalist’s government-assigned minder, who was sitting in the audience. “My heart is booming. It’s too exciting.”

The audience applauded for more than five minutes and orchestra members, some of them crying, waved.

People in the seats cheered and waved back, reluctant to let the visiting Americans leave.

“Was that an emotional experience!” said Jon Deak, a bass player, moments after the concert ended. “It’s an incredible joy and sadness and connection like I’ve never seen. They really opened their hearts to us.”

The “Arirang” rendition also proved moving for the orchestra’s eight members of Korean origin.

“It brought tears to my eyes,” said Michelle Kim, a violinist whose parents moved from North Korea to Seoul during the Korean War and who later moved to the United States.

This could easily be described as propaganda of the highest order; but, were we to do so, we would also have to acknowledge that this was one of those rare occasions in which the connotation of the noun "propaganda" was positive. For those who do not dig into such details, the origin of this noun comes from a seventeenth-century committee of cardinals founded by Pope Gregory XV, called the congregatio de propaganda fide, the "congregation for propagating the faith." The visit of the New York Philharmonic involved a propagation of faith that takes place whenever musicians perform before an audience, the faith that music can achieve bonds of understanding that are beyond the reach of words. If Wakin's report is to be accepted at face value, then this faith was propagated with overwhelming success.

One reason for that success may have to do with the recognition that understanding is a two-way street. Understanding is not "dictated" from speaker to listener. Rather, it is a mutual condition achieved by both parties establishing a platform upon which further conversation may take place. On the one hand the Philharmonic was "telling" their North Korean audience about an American mindset grounded in Dvořák and Gershwin; but that quest for mutuality was achieved by their modest attempt to perform the music of the culture they were visiting. That performance appears to have pulled all the right strings, making it no different from a performance of Dvořák in Manhattan that pulls the strings that enable the audience to tap into what that music is expressing. In other words achieving those bonds of understanding in Lincoln Center is not in any way substantively different from achieving them in Pyongyang. In both cases the bonds are sealed because they extend "beyond the reach of words," which is particularly important in our relations with a country like North Korea, where it appears as if (on both sides of the conversation) words are being used primarily as a weapon to thwart understanding.

This is not to suggest that the performance of music is a viable alternative to statecraft (preferring the noun promoted by Dennis Ross to "diplomacy"). Nevertheless, a paraphrase of Georges Clemenceau may be in order if we are to recognize that mutual understanding between radically different cultures is far too serious to be entrusted to political leaders, most of whom would prefer to think of leadership in terms of domination rather than understanding. Perhaps the most important lesson from this concert has to do with that metaphor of the platform upon which conversations of statecraft may take place. Just because the platform is necessary, that does not mean that those who are supported by it need be the ones who build it. We should recognize that performing artists (as well as ping-pong players) have "better tools," so to speak, for building the platform. After the platform has been built, the expressive powers of musical performance can leave that platform to be used by those who must suffer under the limitations of mere words.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Preaching Against the Choir

Justin Frank's blog post on The Huffington Post this morning was one of the better moves in what has become the WWE Friday Night Smackdown! approach to political debate. Those moves are all there in his first two paragraphs:

Senator Clinton is not preaching to the choir, celestial or not. Her attempt Sunday to mock Senator Obama was not only ineffective; it was profoundly unpresidential. I doubt that her pseudo prayer meeting hurt Obama, certainly not the way President Bush's mocking antics hurt those who voted for, and those in the media who cheered, his invasion of Iraq. The video in which he laughingly pretended to look for WMDs under his desk degraded our own American soldiers who are sacrificing their lives and souls overseas. In pretending to laugh at himself he was really dismissing the devastation caused by his lies.

When Senator Clinton said the "celestial choirs will be singing" she did more than make fun of Obama's optimistic rhetoric; she mocked the millions of Americans who experience Obama as a fresh and compelling leader. She essentially said that Obama supporters are dupes who are stupidly taken in by what she feels is his magical approach to genuine political conflict. She is really mocking herself - the candidate with 'experience' duped by President Bush into rubber-stamping his war.

However, as is almost always the case, there is a "story behind the story" that Frank chose to tell. Hillary Clinton has run afoul of a truth that "men prefer not to hear," as Herbert Agar put it. That truth is our proclivity for messianic thinking. Even if we dispense with the celestial metaphors, we are still addicted to a "Secular Messianism," which assumes that any problem can be solved by the right person on a white horse riding to our rescue. Yes, when you are running for office, it does no good to call your audience dupes; but we cannot escape the problem that messianic thinking is fundamentally infantile in nature, since it presumes that all problems will be solved by some "higher-level adult" rather than our own commitment to effort. The JFK inaugural address was based on inspiring us all to such commitment. The fact that Clinton cannot do the same may be her greatest weakness as a candidate.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Alberich the Jew

There is no disputing Richard Wagner's anti-Semitism; nor is there disputing the legacy of anti-Semitic practices at Bayreuth long after his death. On the other side of the coin, it took approximately half a century for the State of Israel to accept the performance of Wagner's music in its concert halls. As Ghandi said, "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."

The question is not whether Wagner's music should be performed by societies that violently reject his philosophy. Rather, the question is whether productions of his operas should intentionally reopen the wounds of that philosophy. This was the primary thought on my mind when, through the good graces of the Wagner Society of Northern California, I had an opportunity to view a video of the Covent Garden Rheingold, a 2006 recording of the staging by Keith Warner. Warner seems to have done most of his work in Great Britain, although his resume includes the Portland Opera (Tosca, Carmen, and Fliegende Holländer), as well as the Opera Theatre of St. Louis and Glimmerglass. His track record is such that he should know a thing or two about audience reactions. On the other hand, if I were to judge him on the basis of his "statement of purpose" that was handed out at the Wagner Society meeting, I would have to confess that I would be suspicious of any stage director who invokes Kant in his lead sentence. This carries the air of elegant systems, intricately structured and then delivered without the slightest hint of rhetorical skill. Still, this is not the sort of stuff that warns one to be prepared to take serious offence. At worst one should be prepared for blowhard-style silliness.

That, indeed, is sort of how the video of Rheingold begins, with the full-frontal nudity of the Rhine Maidens clambering up and down ladders in shimmering light. Then we see Alberich up above them, paddling along a sort of aqueduct in a rowboat. However, when the camera homes in on Gunter von Kannen singing this role, we are struck by a bizarre shock of recognition: Alberich has been cast as Zero Mostel, not the versatile comic who delighted so many of us with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum or Fiddler on the Roof, but a synthesis of the hypertrophic id of Max Bialystock with the Morris Mishkin of The Angel Levine, pressed by the worst of circumstances to the brink of cursing God. This is the Zero Mostel who portrayed the Jew-in-agony with unbelievable poignancy transplanted by Warner to suffer the futility of frolicking with the Rhine Maidens.

Now I may be reading more into this than Warner intended, but it is not hard for me to feel as if he was encouraging me. He even had Wellgunde open Alberich's fly; so her little "Pfui!" outburst (immortalized by Anna Russell) seems to be provoked by the sight of his (circumcised) penis. This was pushing the envelope, and pushing it even further than Hans-Jürgen Syberberg did with his Parsifal film, which began with photographs of bombed-out Hiroshima and led up to an abundance of Nazi flags surrounding the Knights of the Grail. However, while Syberberg may have been indulging in provocation for its own sake, this conception of Alberich resonates with all the anti-Semitic stereotypes of the greedy Jew who curses that most Christian value of love. Whether or not this was the Alberich Wagner had in mind, was this really what we wanted from a Ring for the 21st century?

Just to be fair, however, I should point out that none of the characters in this Rheingold do anything to warrant our sympathy. The gods are hopelessly decadent Victorians, and Freia cannot even make up her mind whether to flirt with the giants or fear them. Nibelheim is a grotesque laboratory for genetic engineering, the Rhine Maidens are destructive Lorelei, and Erda just sits in a chair during the entire opera, observing the whole affair as if it were the only thing to watch on television. Yes, this is the part of the story that exposes the tragic flaws; but Warner's conception leaves us insensitive as to whether or not there will be any redemption from this mess.

It is the sort of production that reminds me of Chronicle reviews that advised the reader to close his/her eyes and just enjoy the music. Unfortunately, the musical interpretation is pretty bland. The climax of the hammer blow that opens the bridge to Valhalla was definitely the weakest I have ever heard. Conductor Antonio Pappano seemed to lack the necessary sense of the whole that gives shape to these uninterrupted two-and-one-half hours of music. All in all perhaps the greatest virtue of this video is that it provides an excellent cure for Covent Garden envy!

We'll Always Have Mozart

I seem to have this habit of reviewing the news before setting out to write about more general topics, such as music. This is not always the best of tactics. It's bad enough when we are besieged by political follies, but we also have to contend with a particularly virulent flu strain that seems to have gotten overlooked in this year's vaccine and weather patterns that just keep getting worse. Those last two factors probably contributed to my arriving at Davies Symphony Hall later than usual last night and finding it depressingly empty with less than fifteen minutes before the beginning of the concert. Fortunately, the problem seems to have been primarily due to our latest round of "extreme weather;" and most of the empty seats were filled after the first item on the program. I was glad to see this, since one of my contacts in the Box Office had informed me that this was a sold-out event.

This was Herbert Blomstedt's second appearance with the San Francisco Symphony, complementing last week's all-Tchaikovsky program with an all-Mozart evening. I have already observed that his programs seem to have more popular appeal than they did when he was music director, and his approach to Mozart was no exception. Indeed, when one places the San Francisco Symphony alongside the Midsummer Mozart Orchestra, conducted by George Cleve, and Donald Runnicles' performances of Mozart with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, San Francisco emerges as a city of well-developed Mozart listeners. Such listeners are always interested in hearing new approaches to pieces previously heard, so it was interesting that the first half of the concert consisted of two works from last summer's Midsummer Mozart programs, the K. 251 D major divertimento and the K. 482 E-flat major piano concerto. Furthermore, the piano concerto had been performed by the Symphony last season by Emanuel Ax under Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä; so there were a wealth of opportunities to drink old wine from new bottles (or new wine from old bottles, if you prefer).

The piano soloist was Jonathan Biss, who was last in San Francisco about a year ago for a solo recital. In some ways that recital reminded me of a recital that Ax had given in the early stages of his own career, particularly since Biss had included Webern on his program as Ax had done with Schoenberg. In both cases this struck me as somewhat of a defiant claim to personal identity in a field of so many pianists clamoring for attention, but there was also a sense in which the entire program was challenging the way in which we listened. This was most evident in his performance of Mozart, which, I argued at the time, only began to make sense after we heard his approach to Schumann in the second half of the program. This is all very well and good for a solo recital, but it left me entering Davies last night wondering how Biss would share the spotlight. Would he, as they say, "play well with others?"

Well, as I discovered last week, Blomstedt is very generous to his soloists, even when they go in for the sort of heavy-handed exhibitionism that Nikolai Lugansky brought to his Tchaikovsky performance. Biss may have provocative ideas, but he is not an exhibitionist in presenting them. Indeed, last night's performance was very much a meeting of minds over how to approach Mozart. Schumann was not to be found on the program, and his influence was not to be found in Biss' performance. In the context of other K. 482 performances, this one was closer to the way in which George Cleve and soloist Janina Fialkowska escorted the listener through the delights of all the nuances in Mozart's score, rather than the "show-off kid" approach that Ax could take by letting his hair down, having firmly established his reputation. Blomstedt's conducting, of course, is at its best when he is teasing out those nuances; but what mattered was that he and Biss were "on the same page" in the approach they took together to how we would hear them. Even the cadenzas that Biss had prepared were consistent with this nuanced approach, making the opportunity to hear yet another interpretation of this concerto a real delight.

For the rest of the evening Blomstedt was "in charge" of all the nuances, so to speak. This was particularly evident in the second half of the program, which consisted entirely of the K. 504 D major symphony ("Prague"). This is another instance of "Mannheim dynamics," where the gradual crescendo can count for more than the piano-forte contrast. What makes Blomstedt particularly effective is the way in which he makes us aware of these effects without exaggerating them. There is often an effort to put the subtlety under a magnifying glass, lest it escape the attention of the audience; but Blomstedt knows how to let these moments speak for themselves. The result is a polished elegance with no hint of displaced exaggeration. At the same time there is absolutely no sense of tedium, even though all repeats are taken with total fidelity to the printed score. The fact is that, when these moments return to us, we welcome the opportunity to hear them again. They are revisiting us, and they are welcome friends.

The program opened with the K. 251 divertimento, which probably was the closest we got to the "show-off kid" side of Mozart. This is almost (but not quite) an oboe concerto; and, if William Bennett was a bit more refined than Laura Griffiths had been last summer, particularly in the "brassy" effect of repeated notes in the rondo movement, he brought his own "voice" to bear on his solos, which were as nuanced as those that Biss would later perform. Actually, there is a fair amount of solo work in this divertimento, not always in the most expected of places. Mozart always had a great love of inner voices. In this case this meant that the first-chair second violin had a solo voice to support "leads" from both Bennett's oboe and Alexander Barantschik's first violin. Paul Brancato was the second violin soloist, and his role was one of both support and individuality. Nevertheless, one should not focus too heavily on those solo voices. The entire program was played by a reduced orchestra, meaning that every voice in the ensemble mattered. Blomstedt conducted that way, and everyone on stage knew exactly how to respond appropriately.

It's Still All About Consumerism

Here's an interesting tidbit that showed up on Net News Publisher yesterday:

U.S. consumers rate Barack Obama as more appealing, trustworthy, and influential than other presidential candidates, including Hillary Clinton and John McCain, according to data released today by the Davie Brown Celebrity Index (DBI).

According to the DBI, an independent index typically used by brand marketers to determine a celebrity’s ability to influence consumer purchase intent, Obama’s scores in “appeal” are 15 points higher than those of Clinton and 12 points higher than McCain.

The Illinois Senator also scored 12 points better in the DBI’s “trust” attribute than Clinton and McCain.

It's not that we did not already know that politics is all about manipulating consumers through brand marketing. It's that we rarely get to peek behind the curtain and see the quantitative metrics that drive the whole damned process; and, as is often the case, the meaning is best revealed by the poetic wisdom behind the numbers. Jeff Chown, president of Davie Brown Talent, has given us a taste of that poetic wisdom:

In terms of appeal and trust, in the minds of U.S. consumers, comparing Obama to Clinton is like comparing Tom Hanks to Martha Stewart.

So let's step back from the whole shootin' match (and, considering the recent Clinton strategy, that metaphor is hardly out of place) and look instead at the dead moose on the table. Brand marketing is all about consumer manipulation: getting consumers to consumer more in general and more of your "stuff" in particular. One man has devoted pretty much the entirety of his career to protecting consumers from getting snookered by brand marketers; and that man is (drum roll, please) Ralph Nader! So is it any wonder that he has decided to upset the apple cart by entering the political fray one more time?

Of course one of the things that makes Nader so "unreasonable" is that those brand marketers do such a good job that consumers actually prefer being snookered to being protected! The metaphors of our life revolve around little pink bunnies and Asian lizards that speak with an Australian accent, even if we have no particular need for what they are trying to sell us. So it is that, in trying to protect us from the same confidence games in the political process, Ralph Nader will once again find himself tilting at windmills and vilified for taking away the votes of those few people who recognize the sense he is making. This is not so much a question of whether or not the medium is the message but of how media have lulled us into a false sense of security that no longer cares whether or not there is a message!

Being Unreasonable Again

The "unreasonable man" is at it again. Here is the Associated Press account of Ralph Nader's decision to run for President as a third-party candidate again:

Ralph Nader is launching a third-party campaign for president. The consumer advocate made the announcement Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press." He says most Americans are disenchanted with the Democratic and Republican parties, and that none of the presidential contenders are addressing ways to stem corporate crime and Pentagon waste and promote labor rights.

There is sure to be much gnashing of teeth over this decision. Still, there is a lot of truth in the third sentence of the above paragraph. The only problem may be that his list of what the presidential contenders are not addressing adequately is far too short, but perhaps he simply has embraced the rhetorical power of keeping things in threes. Of course it probably would have been more accurate for him to say "none of the remaining presidential contenders." The Democrats had almost an embarrassment of riches in contenders who wanted to confront the most painful issues of substance, but they have now all been eliminated from the race. All that remains in both parties is familiar rhetoric that does little more than cover over a status quo of benign neglect. This, of course, is exactly what that not-so-mythical "American ruling class" wants. The only threat they fear is the threat to business-as-usual; and, now that they have filtered that threat out of the coming electoral process, they can sit back and let the chips fall where they may. The ruling class will continue to rule.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

John Dewey and the Ghost of Heinrich von Kleist

As I continue to work my way through John Dewey's Art as Experience, I found myself confronting a sentence that embodied an interesting reflection back to the early nineteenth century:

As the writer composes in his medium of words what he wants to say, his idea takes on for himself perceptible form.

This is very much the spirit in which I launched this blog in the first place. While language may not be the embodiment of ideas, ideas only achieve functional value when they are made sharable; and they can only be made sharable once they are rendered in some "perceptible form." That perceptible form may not necessarily involve language (which is one of the key points that Dewey develops in Art as Experience); but, at least in the history of Western civilization (such as it is), text has probably become the most popular of perceptible forms when it comes to sharing ideas. Hence the motivation behind the title of this blog: a place where I can "rehearse" ideas by composing them in the medium of words. This "rehearsal" is not just for the benefit of those who choose to read my words; it is also for my own benefit, as I wrestle with the process of composition to bring the idea to a point where it is as perceptible to me as it is to others, after which my attention can shift from wrestling with the text to wrestling with the idea.

When I first introduced this motivation, I made no mention of Dewey. His books were occupying a rather modest portion of shelf space; and they were all in the to-be-read-sooner-or-later category, always being pushed back into the "later" category by other books. The source I did cite was the essay, "On the Gradual Fabrication of Thoughts While Speaking," by Heinrich von Kleist. Kleist predated Dewey by roughly a century; but, while he would later be a major influence on Nietzsche and Kafka, he was probably virtually unknown in Dewey's America. Kleist was also sufficiently eccentric that, as I cited in introducing this blog, it is unlikely that any of us will ever know how seriously Kleist took the thesis of this essay; he could just as easily have been playing with the style of the expository essay to explore a proposition that he felt was absurd, just as Jorge Luis Borges would later play with the style of the book review by applying it to non-existent texts. Nevertheless, Dewey's proposition deserves to be "haunted" by Kleist's essay, since thoughts that are "gradually fabricated" "while speaking" are no different from those that assume "perceptible form" as they are composed in written text. Indeed, Kleist's proposition predates Dewey's, since it taps into the question of how knowledge had been made sharable in the earlier generations of oral cultures.

Note that I have used the verb "haunt," rather than "influence," to reinforce my assumption that Kleist probably had no explicit influence on Dewey when he was preparing to give those William James lectures at Harvard in 1931. Kleist's "ghost" is present only to those of us who have read him, which is why I have tried to connote a "spectral" relationship between these two minds, one of which may have been "just messin' with us," while the other was preparing for the august and critical audience one would expect among those attending a lecture at Harvard University. These are radically different "realms of being," to invoke a phrase coined by another great Harvard lecturer, George Santayana (part of Dewey's audience for all we know); but, as I have previously discussed, the authors of the Upanishads believed that knowledge resided in the connections that bound together elements from similarly unrelated realms. We are capable of making connections that would have been beyond the realm of conception for Dewey's Harvard audiences, but that means that we are also capable of understanding Dewey better than his original audiences did. Indeed, at the risk of sounding a bit too arrogant, we are capable of understanding Dewey better than he did himself, simply because we can do so much more with the "perceptible forms" of his ideas.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Polling with Chutzpah

Unless I am mistaken, I have not yet granted a Chutzpah of the Week award to Fox News. I suppose the primary reason for this is that I pay as little attention as possible to this institution. I have decided that, in this particular case, ridicule is as much of a waste of time as is indignant outrage (rather than the usual viable alternative). Nevertheless, there is definitely an element of chutzpah when it comes to taking a deliberately perverted approach to polling, particularly when, at least on the surface, one is trying to tap into prevailing opinions on who will end up in the White House next January. More specifically, Fox News (at least according to their reporter Dana Blanton) decided to throw the following zinger into their latest poll:

Who is Usama Rooting For?

Who does Usama bin Laden want to be the next president? More people think the terrorist leader wants Obama to win (30 percent) than think he wants Clinton (22 percent) or McCain (10 percent). Another 18 percent says it doesn’t matter to bin Laden and 20 percent are unsure

If there is any comfort from this latest Fox tactic, it is in those 18 percent who had the gumption to tell Fox that the question was not worth asking. Unfortunately, that leaves us with the 82 percent who took it seriously. Were they all informed by a worldview shaped by watching Fox News?

The Deceptive Headline

The title of yesterday's blog post by Jan Herman on The Huffington Post reads "Milton Glaser Loves Information, Not Persuasion." Fortunately, he began by reminding us that we were familiar with Glaser's work, if not his name:

The 79-year-old graphic designer perhaps most famous for creating the INY logo had a dose of surprising advice last week for the propagandists among us -- the marketers, advertisers, public-relations spinners and, yes, journalists -- along with citizens at large facing an onslaught of political campaigns.

It is "essential for us all to question all the beliefs we cherish," Milton Glaser said in his keynote speech to a daylong 'ganda bash, "Where the Truth Lies," organized by the School of Visual Arts with The Graduate Center, CUNY. "Beliefs must be held lightly because certainty can be the enemy of truth."

Unfortunately, Herman's zealous desire to bash propagandists led him down the path of sloppy reporting, best represented by his choice of title, which turns out to be a misreading of Glaser's citation of Horace. The text Glaser cited was the aphorism, "The purpose of art is to inform and delight," which he then qualified by observing, "Horace did not say persuade and delight." Herman then tried to map this into twentieth-century rhetoric, thereby instituting as much distortion as any good propagandist would.

This is one of those cases where distinguishing between nouns and verbs is no mere matter of grammatical nit-picking. Horace chose to describe the purpose of art with verbs because his focus was on artistic practice, rather than artistic products; and, to make the situation even more complicated, it is unclear that the Latin language recognized "information" as a "product of informing." Indeed, my cheap paperback Latin dictionary reveals that the Latin word for "information" is informatio (which also happens to be the noun for "idea"), while the Latin for the verb "inform" is instruěre, as in "to teach." In other words the purpose of art is to teach and delight, which is pretty much the way Aristotle had put it in his "Poetics." Herman has basically deep-ended on current practices of warping the concept of "information" beyond any useful recognition, thus bashing those propagandists with a red herring.

All this just goes to show that Herman seems to have missed the entire point of Glaser's lecture. Glaser used a belief that he cherished as his focal point, and Herman then embraced and cherished his own corrupted reading of Glaser's text without ever thinking to question the position he just took. In other words he put a "spin" on his experience in order to use his blog post to flog the propagandists, not realizing that, in so doing, he was placing himself in the midst of their camp. Like most propagandists, he assumed that his text would never be read at more than a casual level; but we know better, don't we?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Action on the Periphery

Net News Publisher has released an interesting account of a paper published in the Journal of Human Movement Science. The title is "Seeing vs. believing: Is believing sufficient to activate the processes of response co-representation?;" and the author is Tim Welsh of the Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Calgary. Here is the summary culled from the opening paragraphs of the New News Publisher account:

You may not be aware of it - they might not be aware of it, but the people in your work environment might be slowing you down. New research by University of Calgary, Faculty of Kinesiology researcher Dr. Tim Welsh says that regardless of their intentions, having an individual working on a different task - within your field of vision - could be enough to slow down your performance.

“Imagine a situation like a complex assembly line,” said Welsh If you are doing a particular task and the person across from you is doing a different task, you’ll be slowed down regardless of their performance.”

The reason for this is a built-in response-interpretation mechanism that is hard-wired into our central nervous systems. If we see someone performing a task we automatically imagine ourselves performing that task. This behavior is part of our mirror neuron system.

I developed an amateur's interest in kinesiology that goes back to when I was doing research into dance notation about 30 years ago. However, bearing that casual acquaintance in mind, this is the first time I have encountered a published result that deals with the mind-body question where human movement is concerned; but there is still a question of what the scope of Welsh's results are likely to be.

The critical sentence is Welsh's own in the second paragraph cited. On the surface this is a study of improving behavioral efficiency on an assembly line, particularly where complex tasks are involved. The fact that this problem is being studied at all throws some interesting light on the state of Taylorism today. On the one hand it reveals that we are as drunk on those "principles of scientific management" as we have ever been; but, on the other hand, the postulation of "complex tasks" indicates a rejection of Frederick Taylor's most important premise. Thus, I am less interested in Welsh's result and more interested in where he got support for his research and what that says about current work practices.

More specifically, what does this say about that once-grand experiment in production lines, the Toyota-GM joint venture into New United Motor Manufacturing (NUMMI)? Recall that this was a production environment in which peripheral awareness was regarded as an asset, rather than a liability; and it became somewhat of a poster child for the proposition that even work on a production line could be viewed as "knowledge work." We do not hear much about new approaches to production lines these days; nor do we hear much about knowledge work, which is probably just well, since any valid semantics for the phrase were quickly sucked out by those evangelists who saw it as the best ticket to consulting contracts. The hypothesis behind the NUMMI experiment, however, was that, whatever quantitative metric one might select, the productivity of the group was more important than the productivity of the individual; and the two were not related by anything as simple as a linear equation. However, in the current social world where just about every manufacturing effort is regarded as a losing proposition, broad questions of productivity give way to the hollow cant about "doing more with less." So, if there were any lessons to be learned from NUMMI, it would be hard to find anyone paying attention to them these days.

This is why what interests me most about Welsh's paper is the question of who supported his research. "Pure" Taylorism, which involves reducing a complex process to the simplest possible steps, may be the ultimate refuge for "doing more with less" thinking, since, when you strip away all of the philosophizing, that was Taylor's primary goal. Thus, one way to read Welsh's results is as a recommendation to eliminate complex tasks from the production line, since simpler tasks are less likely to be jeopardized by peripheral awareness. We may be seeing a return to Taylorism as Taylor originally conceived it in the workplace, all in the interest of keeping the production line going while downsizing the staff. Any question of how alienating a "scientifically managed" workplace can be may then be conveniently swept off the shop floor in favor of these new results from an academic setting. Since this approach is being taken in the interest of economic survival, those who still have jobs in this new workplace will know better to complain about alienation and be thankful that they have a job at all. The Marxists had a phrase for such workers that we do not hear much these days: They were called "wage slaves." This is yet another sign that the shadow of slavery still hangs over us, particularly in its relation to the war against the poor.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Paying Attention to the Audience

There is a corollary I neglected to mention in my recent examination of the growing neglect of the performing arts on public television. It stems from the premise I had postulated that public television used to provide a vehicle for expanding the reach of the performing arts. The focus of my discussion was on how more people could be part of the experience of a performance through the virtue of a broadcasting medium, but this is only part of the story. If, through the exposure of public television, more people developed an awareness of being an audience for the performing arts, then that awareness could then translate into ticket sales for "live" events: The translation from "virtual presence" to "physical presence" would be facilitated.

I raise this point because I doubt that there is any performing arts organization in the United States that is not currently having trouble maintaining, let alone growing, its subscriber base. At the beginning of this year, I wrote about the extent to which the 2008–09 season of the San Francisco Opera seems to have been designed by General Director David Gockley to address this problem. Gockley well understands the need to steer a safe course between Scylla and Charybdis: On the one hand he cannot run an opera company without a revenue base to support that company's budget; but, on the other hand, providing that revenue base has a lot to do with determining and satisfying the needs of current and potential audience members. One cannot steer that course without taking risks. Gockley will be taking some interesting risks; and I, for one, shall be very curious to see the sort of impact they have.

I write all this today by way of a response to Ivan Katz' latest blog post on The Huffington Post, which is basically an attack on the strategic planners of the Philadelphia Orchestra to steer a course of their own. Katz has provided an interesting yardstick for measuring the sorts of decisions taken by not only the San Francisco Opera but also the San Francisco Symphony, both of which face the same problems with their respective subscriber bases. The question, however, is whether his yardstick provides effective measurements, because some of the assumptions that Katz makes about audiences (and possibly performers) may be off the mark.

By way of disclaimer I should explain that I spent many formative years in Philadelphia. For many of those years, my parents subscribed to the Philadelphia Orchestra; and I listened to many of their concerts on the radio. When I taught at the University of Pennsylvania, I had an apartment whose living room provided a wonderful view of the entrance to the Academy of Music. I never subscribed, because I could always go out and walk a couple of blocks to pick up tickets for any performance that interested me. However, my interest in the Orchestra dissipated quickly after my parents moved to Pittsburgh to be closer to my brother (who plays in the Pittsburgh Symphony); and I know virtually nothing about what has happened since those Philadelphians left the Academy of Music.

Having gotten any lurking biases out of the way, let me now cite the key paragraphs of Katz' argument:

The traditional manner of programming orchestral concerts has involved giving audiences a balanced diet of mixed cuisine. John Adams' The Chairman Dances appears on a program with a Mozart Piano Concerto and perhaps a Rachmaninoff symphony. A large, gaudy Vaughan-Williams work follows a Rossini overture and it in turn is followed by a Haydn Symphony. The general rule seems to be that giving the audience what it wants must be balanced in some respects by a desire to give the audience music that it needs to hear. You "sugar coat" the pill of Schnittke's music (widely deemed box office poison) by surrounding it with something comfortable and familiar -- like Brahms, Beethoven or Tchaikovsky.

The mighty Philadelphians, however, have heard the Siren Song of the consultants and have decided to go in a new direction. So one of America's most storied orchestras is now offering, in addition to the traditional subscription plans, a whole host of options. One can opt for the "Masterworks" series, described by The Inquirer as "warhorses" with the music "prefaced with spoken explanations from the stage" - presumably for those too lazy to read the program notes. The "Connoisseur" series is "the traditional night at the orchestra" without the spoken commentary. (As though tarting it up with a French name is going to make it a hotter commodity.) The "Odyssey" series is said to be "...a bit more adventurous, with live-image projections of the onstage action and postlude recitals after the concerts". Finally, there is the option of the "Celebration" series which has "...Saturday night gatherings with other listeners and musicians, along with live-image projections and spoke introductions."

First of all, while I have no idea if that second paragraph is meant to be the first attempt by the Philadelphia Orchestra to break with that "traditional manner of programming" cited in the first paragraph, regular readers probably know by now that the San Francisco Symphony has little truck with that particular tradition. Furthermore, my current impression is that programs are set by the conductor; and even the guests have a hand in choosing what they will perform (while management tries to make sure that this fits in with the other concerts in the season). The result is that an evening at the San Francisco Symphony usually has some over-arching theme, which can then provide a point of departure for the pre-concert talk. That theme may involve multiple perspectives on a single composer (such as Tchaikovsky), an examination of a particular "window" on music history (such as the twentieth century), or an attempt to find a connection where others would find only contrast (as in Michael Tilson Thomas' "Vertigo-connection" between Mozart and Mahler). I have always approached this as an exploration of means to help audiences become better listeners; and, given the many attentive faces I often see in Davies Symphony Hall, I would say that the strategy seems to work at least some of the time.

The most important point of this approach is that it is not a strategy of "sugar coating." When MTT wants to serve up Charles Ives, then Ives is the focus of the evening; and, if the program ends up coupling him with Felix Mendelssohn's violin concerto, then it is no surprise that at least some aspects of listening to Mendelssohn end up informing our listening to Ives. The only time I have seen MTT frustrated in this strategy has been when he has tried to program the six short orchestral pieces of Anton Webern; and I suspect that the problem there has more to do with what I have called "the unbearable being of silence" than with Webern being too opaque for listeners unfamiliar with him. The nervous coughs that greet Webern are no different from those that always tend to descend upon those Wagner operas that begin on the brink of silence, such as Lohengrin and Tristan und Isolde. Yes, this is the sort of thing that separates the experienced from the newbies; but it can only be resolved through increased exposure, rather than "sugar coating."

Having said all that, what are we to make of the new Philadelphia strategy? Personally, I feel that the most important thing that a performing arts organization can do is provide audiences with informed expectations of what is going to happen when the lights dim. This is why I have always been in favor of pre-concert talks, even if I do not attend all of them myself. When I lived in Singapore, the General Manager of the Singapore Symphony told me that her biggest problem was that most of the people in the audience did not know what to do when attending a concert. I introduced her to the concept of the pre-concert talk and then found myself accepting responsibility for preparing a series of these talks. It did not take long for these talks to build up their own audience of "regulars;" and, since they were coming regularly to the talks, presumably they were sticking around to hear the music more regularly than they had previously done.

On the basis of both the talks I have attended and those I have given, I have never encountered one that was "for those too lazy to read the program notes." Most important is that the talk provides opportunities to listen to portions of the music that are beyond the scope of the medium of the program book. Also, while those talks tend not to involve a Q&A, they provide opportunities for conversation, whether by coming up to the lecturer after the talk or by talking with friends about what the lecturer said. Remember, the prize on which we keep our eyes is an audience of better listeners; and these talks can do a lot to bring us closer to that prize.

Then there is this matter of "live-image projections." I have always felt that this was the "secret ingredient" that made Evening at Symphony on PBS such a triumph. All direction of camera shots was informed by the score being performed. This was such a serious matter that the camera crew would rehearse in Symphony Hall with a stage on which all the chairs were in the right place, each labeled with the name of the performer; and all the camera work would be executed against a recording of the performance. This whole process was the brainchild of Jordan Whitelaw, who supposedly once said, "If you don't see it, you may not hear it!" This is far from a trivialization of the listening process; it is one of the best strategies for cultivating that process. Of course it only works if it is properly executed; and, if it is poorly executed, it can do far more harm than good.

Finally, there is that "platinum-level" status that allows for socializing with other listeners and performers. This was part of the way in which the San Francisco Symphony planned their "Bloggers' Night" last summer. As a strategy for making special people feel special, it tends to be a good one and therefore should not be dismissed if it works for the revenue base. Whether or not it makes those special people better listeners is a harder call, since the quality of a conversation has a lot to do with who is actually doing the conversing. Living composers like Steve Reich and John Adams are very comfortable in talking about their work, and the result is that their clarity of speech does a lot for the listener's clarity of perception. Similarly, at the "Bloggers' Night" event the young up-and-coming pianist Gabriela Martinez did such a good job of talking about Rachmaninoff's third piano concerto that I titled my blog post in her honor, "Taming Rachmaninoff's Monster." Between such examples and my own efforts to prepare pre-concert talks, I have come to the conclusion that people want to talk about their concert-going experiences; and giving them simulating opportunities to do so is likely to contribute to their attending more concerts.

Having said all this, let me conclude by suggesting that, for all its merits, my argument may be a "tale of two coasts." Katz described the Philadelphia Orchestra as "without doubt one of the finest symphony orchestras in North America and, arguably, the world." Well, skeptic that I am, I tend to doubt everything! I am sure that for many years the San Francisco Symphony lived in the shadow of the "big five" (New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago); and anyone serious about performing in an orchestra would view it as a stepping stone to a better place. I do not believe this is still true. As I have remarked many times, the San Francisco Symphony performs by virtue of a passionate bond to most of their conductors, not just MTT and former Music Director Herbert Blomstedt but many of the visitors, such as Kurt Mazur and Ingo Metzmacher. Perhaps there are some musicians who would leap at the opportunity to perform under Simon Rattle in Berlin; but I doubt that we have to contend with any serious case of "Philadelphia envy." Furthermore, radio is making it possible for serious listeners to experience more and more live performances from more and more concert halls; and the result is that those listeners are developing a better sense of diversity, rather than getting overly occupied with who is at the top of the pile. Since different conductors have so many different ways of approaching each of the works in the repertoire, that "pile" is a fiction; and all that really matters is that the opportunities through which we can be better listeners continue to grow. All I really wish is that public television would get back on board in facilitating that growth process!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Sometimes There is no Need to Look for a Subtext!

Not all of President George W. Bush's remarks in Kigali, Rwanda, need to be deconstructed. Sometimes the dead moose on the table is right there in the surface structure. Consider the following comment that Bush made, reported by Associated Press presumably on that same occasion of his visit to the Kigali Memorial Centre, with reference to conditions in Cuba:

It just breaks your heart to realize that people have been thrown in prisons because they dare speak out.

Yes, my heart aches for such people, particularly those imprisoned in Cuba at Guantanamo Bay, many of whom are there simply because there efforts to "speak out" caused them to be identified as "persons of interest." I suppose this just demonstrates that those with a strong sense of faith have absolutely no sense of irony!

Is There a Subtext?

It is not news that President George W. Bush cannot utter the text of a short paragraph without tripping over at least one of the words or phrases. This may well be a combination of a calculated effort to give the impression of being "jes' plain folks" running into occasional attempts to improvise beyond the prepared text as a sign of taking the text seriously. These blunders are familiar fodder for comedians (and their writers, now that they are back at work). However, in the spirit of the Freudian slip, the question remains as to whether or not any of those blunders reveal a subtext that may tell us more than either the text or its "folksy" delivery can reveal.

I would like to consider this question in light of the report that Associate Press Writer Ben Feller filed from Kigali, Rwanda, this morning. Given that the bedrock of Bush's faith-based policies has been opposition to evil in all its manifestations (disregarding any philosophical complexities surrounding the nature of that concept), we might learn something from the utterances he delivered from one of our more recent "hearts of darkness." In the tradition with which Cambodia converted the former high school, which was used as the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge after they invaded Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, into the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum to bear witness to the many atrocities committed at that site, Rwanda has build the Kigali Memorial Centre to bear witness to the genocide of 1994. One way to read Feller's account of this visit is that Bush took it seriously enough to refrain from the usual games he plays with his script:

"It's a moving place. It can't help but shake your emotions to their very foundation," Bush said after walking through its rooms and gardens. "There is evil in the world and evil must be confronted."

Later, by [Rwandan President Paul] Kagame's side, Bush displayed how shaken he was by what he saw. "I just can't imagine what it would have been like to be a citizen who lived in such horrors, and then had to, you know, gather themselves up and try to live a hopeful life," he said.

Still, even if taken in the sincerity of its face value, there is something about that turn of phrase "I just can't imagine" that reveals evil as an abstract concept defined more by the direct assertions of Scripture than by reflection on what happens in the world we actually inhabit. After all, neither Cambodia nor Rwanda was the site of some apocalyptic battle between Christ and Antichrist. The battles fought there were of men against men; and, without that "sense of reality" about the "dark side" of behavior in the social world, all these post-horror memorials cannot leave us any the wiser, no matter how stark their revelations may be.

Ultimately, however, these words simply highlighted aspects of the Bush worldview with which we were already familiar. Of greater interest was when he chose to parlay that worldview into a "legacy message" for his successor. Here is Feller's transcript of his words:

I would tell my successor that the United States can play a very constructive role. I would urge the (next) president not to feel like U.S. solutions should be imposed upon African leaders. I would urge the president to treat our — the leaders in Africa — as partners. In other words, don't come to the continent feeling guilty about anything. Come to the continent feeling confident that with some help, people can solve their problems.

This is a case where the slip of a single word, "our," may unlock the message that Bush really wanted to deliver. It is a message from the mentality of the Cold War, in which the African countries (most of which had only recently emerged from colonial status) found themselves obliged to choose between Communist support or the presence of "freedom-loving Americans." Indeed, it is the message that emerged from the White House shortly after the initial shock of 9/11: those who are not with us are against us. The possessive pronoun discloses the nature of its very label, possession rather than partnership. As I have previously suggested, the war against the poor is ultimately a war of a new perspective on ownership (which is to say human slavery); and the possessive pronoun reminds us that this war is being waged overseas as well as within our own borders.

Needless to say, the spirit of possession is the spirit of totalitarianism (which, along with evil, was the other primary focus of investigation by philosopher Hannah Arendt). The very concept of "order" in the "New World Order" (a phrase we do not hear as much these days) derives from decisions made without opposition or deliberation. This, too, lurked in the subtext of Bush's legacy message:

If you're a problem solver, you put yourself at the mercy of the decisions of others, in this case, the United Nations. And I'm well known to have spoken out by the slowness of the United Nations. It is — seems very bureaucratic to me, particularly with people suffering.

This led, according to Feller's account, to Bush delivering the following conclusion:

Take problems seriously before they become acute, and then recognize that there's going to be a slowness in the response if you rely upon international organizations.

Is this, then, the legacy that Bush wishes to leave the world, a revival of new-world-order thinking, where the Christian injunction to love your neighbor is replaced with the capitalist goal of owning your neighbor? If so, then there is something to be said about the ways in which would-be candidates from both parties have been distancing themselves from the current Administration!

Feller then wrapped up his report with a final episode:

Before leaving for Ghana, Bush and the first lady visited a school where they spoke with children, who are members of an anti-AIDS club, working to spread the word about preventing the disease. The two dozen children, all dressed in white shirts and khaki pants, chatted for about 20 minutes with the Bushes, who sat outside on a hillside in low-slung, hand-carved wooden chairs.

"Thanks for being leaders," the president told them.

I suspect I have to go back to reading William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity before I can figure out those four valedictory words. My guess is that a thorough application of Empson would probably be overkill. Nevertheless, there is something about Empson's approach in terms of a conflicted mind that may tell us more about the way Bush reacted to this group than any geopolitical theory could hope to tell us; and if, in spite of all those professions of faith, Bush's mind is as conflicted as all that, those who have been warning us that he can do much more damage before the end of his term may be on to something.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Sharing a Metaphor with John Dewey

Yesterday, I confessed to invoking the noun "experience" by virtue of being "under the influence" of John Dewey. Actually, it has probably been about 30 years since I last read Art as Experience. Back then I had all the bad habits of an impatient reader, always on the lookout for specific passages that had specific answers to specific questions. As a result, if the tree I needed was not there, I would often retain very little (if any) knowledge of the forest; and, in the case of this particular book, it would be fair to say that the title was about the only thing I took with me after that first excuse for reading. I had made a mental promise to myself to return to the book and read it in a way that would do it better justice, but it took me 30 years to deliver on that promise.

While reading the third chapter of this book ("Having an Experience," which introduces the concept of experience), I came across a passage that I realized bore a strong family resemblance to some of my own recent writing:

In a work of art, different acts, episodes, occurrences melt and fuse into unity, and yet do not disappear and lose their own character as they do so—just as in a genial conversation there is a continuous interchange and blending, and yet each speaker not only retains his own character but manifests it more clearly than is his wont.

I am referring, of course, to that metaphor of the "genial conversation," which I had called "social conversation." In my case I was particularly interested in a dramatic perspective on the conversation: Within the "text" of the music itself, the interaction of the voices in counterpoint could be viewed very much in Dewey's light, "melting" and "fusing" into a unity without any single voice every losing its "own character;" but to focus on the text is to ignore (at least) half the story, because the instrumental performance of those voices is also a matter of rendering a unified experience within which each component voice maintains its "own character." Thus, the metaphor of actors portraying their respective characters in conversation may be applied to how performing musicians "play their parts" in an ensemble performance, whether the scale is that of chamber music or of an orchestra.

Regular readers know that I have been developing this metaphor over several months, totally oblivious to Dewey's work and originally in the context of free jazz (to which Dewey would have been totally oblivious, although he appears to have been at least aware of what was happening in jazz in 1931 when Art as Experience first emerged as a series of William James lectures at Harvard). Free jazz, however, is a rather distinct phenomenon, particularly since the musical "text" is likely to be minimal, if not absent; so the instrumental performance is less the dramatization of a text than a drama unto itself. On the other hand that focus of the "performance conversation," regardless of the text being performed, also influenced my reflection on the farewell season of the Beaux Arts Trio. The synthesis of conversation-in-text and conversation-in-performance, on the other hand, only began to emerge with my approach to the recent San Francisco Symphony performance of Johann Sebastian Bach's second orchestral suite (BWV 1067); and it has been growing in my consciousness since then.

Meanwhile, I am plugging on through Dewey's book, this time giving it a greater measure of attention and patience, in keeping with what this particular text deserves. Having dealt with the fundamental concept of experience, I shall now follow Dewey into his two-chapter exploration of expression, considered first as an act and then in terms of the concept of an "expressive object." To some extent this reflects his distinction between the general nature of experience and what it means to have an experience, which reminds me of my past efforts to distinguish between verb-based and noun-based semantics. In the past I have tended to dwell on this distinction in the context of information management systems and the relationship between computer software and the world of work in business settings, so I am rather enjoying the extent to which the distinction is equally relevant where art is concerned. Perhaps this will turn out to be a case where the harsh realities of the world of work can be seen with greater clarity through the lens of what Giambattista Vico called "poetic wisdom!"